How Did Spiced Rum Became a Homeland Security Threat in the Caribbean?

Aug 24, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

Virtually everything today is in one way or another a potential danger to U.S. national security. There are foreign terrorists, of course. Beyond that authorities cite drug cartels, downturns in the economy, espionage, street gangs, counterfeit goods, right-wing militias, left-wing environmentalists and the multiple personalities of Mother Nature.

Beautiful Caribbean locales, on the other hand, face their own hazards. For the Virgin Islands, one of several U.S. territories many Americans forget have deep historical, political and economic ties to the mainland, its apparently adult beverages and "Puerto Rican terrorists" that together form a feasible threat.

First, background. The story begins with daiquiri-addicted Americans who love the taste of sweet rum at home and while away visiting sun-drenched vacation resorts. More specifically, it's the Spring Break love potion known as Captain Morgan, manufactured by a company called Diageo PLC, the U.K.-based conglomerate behind such intoxicating substances as Guinness beer and Smirnoff vodka. Certain rums like Captain Morgan are produced at vast Caribbean distilleries.

From there the story leads to a monthly magazine called Homeland Security Today, which, at the risk of offending those fine folks, would not be easily mistaken for the New Yorker and certainly won't be appearing next to Cosmo at the check-out stand anytime soon. Its readers are narrowly focused, many of them government contractors and bureaucrats, so an intriguing revelation within its pages could slip by without much notice.

The June issue of Homeland Security Today contained a feature from its editor, David Silverberg, who described changes the Virgin Islands have been making to better prepare for catastrophes and build a stronger culture of emergency management.

Established as a U.S. territory in 1917, the cluster of stunning beaches and seaside hills is by no means free from peril, despite what travel brochures suggest. Droughts can occur on the Virgin Islands due to a dependence on limited rainwater, and the region also faces tropical storms, hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis. Plus, hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude oil are refined on the island of St. Croix every day, Silverberg writes.

But emergency managers in the Virgin Islands didn't emphasize any of these scenarios when they developed a response exercise last year to challenge the area's preparedness capabilities. Instead, according to a brief sidebar from Silverberg headlined "Rum and radicals," they came up with a narrative seemingly capable of causing diplomatic problems by pretending that a group of Puerto Rican terrorists called "The People's Hope" planned to attack facilities on the islands with improvised explosive devices made from fertilizer.

Puerto Rico is also a U.S. territory located not far west in the Caribbean.

Why Puerto Rico?

The response exercise leads back to rum, Silverberg implies. An ambitious governor of the Virgin Islands who took office in 2007 but went to school in Ohio, John deJongh, persuaded Diageo, maker of our popular fuel for debauchery, Captain Morgan, to move its rum-making operations from Puerto Rico to his tropical destination. He did so by promising massive subsidies to Diageo, but the departure would also cost Puerto Rico jobs and tens of millions in tax revenue.

DeJongh argues that the company planned to head elsewhere anyway, but the perception of a coup enraged the Puerto Rican community, both on the island and the mainland. This summer a group that coordinates New York's Puerto Rican Day Parade rejected Diageo as a sponsor following a years-long relationship between the two.

Rum taxes collected from the drink's sale to consumers in the United States are administered by the federal government, so Washington found itself at the center of an ugly political clash over the fate of Captain Morgan. Leaders in the Virgin Islands planned to use those rum taxes to lure Diageo eastward, while advocates for Puerto Rico sought to stop what they call a bailout for the company and keep production where it's been for more than two decades. The whole thing is now known as the "rum wars."

There are reported racial tensions as well. The Congressional Black Caucus has actively defended deJongh's campaign in Washington, while Puerto Rico is linked politically with Hispanic lawmakers.

So now consider in that context not only what's regarded by one side as a drive to "poach" jobs and income needed for public services, but also a training exercise for emergency responders in which one government refers to the citizens of a nearby government as terrorists. According to Homeland Security Today:

The scenario was fictional and intended mainly to test areas of responsibility and jurisdiction among island responders - but the real resentment continues. As recently as April, deJongh was fighting legislative efforts in Congress to nullify the deal and keep Captain Morgan rum in Puerto Rico.

Aggressive lobbying under the capitol dome is one thing. But are Puerto Ricans aware that the folks next door have imagined them as something far worse? The rum wars may in the end serve as a larger commentary about the use of labels in the global war on terror.

G.W. Schulz joined the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008 to launch its ongoing homeland security project. Read the project's blog, Elevated Risk, here.